By William Powers
The John Marshall Law School
After the 2004-2005 academic year, the Law School Admission Council reported that the number of applicants to American Bar Association-approved law schools, which had been on a steady increase since 1998, topped 100,000 for the first time.
Since that high-water mark, the national applicant pool has shrunk, and this shrinkage has been in a dramatic fashion in the past two years, when most law schools have seen 25 percent or more of their applicant pools dry up.
The reasons commonly cited for this phenomenon are other graduate and professional opportunities that exist for recent college graduates, the high cost of legal education and the continuing effect of the recession and other market forces on the ability of law graduates to obtain employment.
These factors have presented law school admission offices with special challenges in the recruitment of potential law students. On the one hand, part of the job of admission professionals is to stir interest in attending law school and to market the strengths of one's particular law school.
Law schools across the country have developed highly specialized programs that help train students to be strong practitioners in a vast array of technical legal fields. Law schools have developed clinics of various kinds that offer law students real world experience in advocating on behalf of actual clients with genuine legal issues.
Externships of various kinds provide students with additional opportunities to experience the practice of law.
The development of foreign programs has enabled law students to sharpen their skills in global as well as domestic settings. Indeed, there is no shortage of wonderful programs for admissions departments to tout to potential law students.
Law school admission offices, however, serve not only to market law school programs, but also to counsel students on whether law school is the right choice. Many admission officers can recount stories of applicants who do not have a sharply focused idea why they want to attend law school or what they plan to do with a law degree.
Law school applicants, unlike medical school applicants, do not have to follow any prescribed curriculum in undergraduate school.
In fact, most law schools embrace the diversity of an entering class comprised of students with different educational backgrounds. A law school class might be comprised of political science majors, together with students majoring in music, chemistry, French, economics, business, etc.
Because law schools do not require applicants to have a particular undergraduate course of study, potential law students can make the decision to attend law school late in their undergraduate careers and sometimes without the amount of thought that such a decision deserves. Some students may opt to attend law school because they are not certain what they want to do after college or as a way to delay the search for employment in a tough job market.
It does not benefit either the law school or the prospective student to attend law school simply to postpone the beginning of adult life. Law school is demanding enough for students who know they want to be there and want a legal education to embark on a legal or other career path.
Students who are just passing time are often less enthusiastic or diligent about their studies and end up struggling. Students who think about law school as a convenient parking space often find themselves no less focused at the end of one or even three years of law school.
Meanwhile, they may have accumulated substantial debt in the process.
Potential law students must consider that the cost of attendance for three years of education and living expenses tops $150,000 at most law schools.
At the same time, the student who is just passing time takes up a slot that could be filled by a student who desperately seeks a legal education to become a practicing lawyer, educator, businessperson or any number of other career paths that are well served by a law degree.
Law school admission officers should help potential applicants understand the personal and financial commitment involved in attending law school.
This is a major life decision. Law school can be a wonderfully rewarding experience and is a necessary step forward for someone committed to the practice of law, but law school is not for everyone, and most definitely not an inexpensive way to fill three years of time after college.
Although applications are down and competition for strong, focused students is fierce, law schools and applicants must take into account the reality that a legal education is not for everyone and the decision to attend law school deserves serious consideration.
Although the decision is ultimately the applicant's to make, law school admission officers should be prepared to assist prospective applicants make that decision in a reflective manner.